An Atlas of the Difficult World Analysis

Adrienne Rich

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“An Atlas of the Difficult World” is a long poem divided into thirteen sections or short poems that relate experiences and observations. The sections are of varying length and are identified only by roman numerals, except for the seventh and the final ones, parenthetically titled “(The Dream-Site)” and “(Dedications),” respectively. Although in the poem the persona, or poetic voice, is often an assumed identity, Adrienne Rich’s poetic journey is enriched by personal images and observations. In this, her thirteenth volume of poetry, Rich provides readers with a mural that does not begin or end with this poem but connects with previous works dating back to 1951, when her first collection, A Change of World, was published.

As denoted by the term “atlas,” the series of poems describes a collection of American scenes that are bound together. Starting in California’s Salinas Valley, “THE SALAD BOWL OF THE WORLD,” Rich characterizes the place not only by location but also by the people who live and work in the “agribusiness empires.”

Throughout the poem, the people she describes are not famous but are always recognizable. They are, in a sense, the landscape of the American journey, which, as the title implies, is part of a difficult world. In the second section Rich addresses the central focus of the poem, looking at “our country” as a whole and alluding to social and economic conditions in the United States. The section ends with an imagined dialogue with a reader: “I promised to show you a map you say but this is a mural.” Rich responds to the hypothetical comment by replying that such distinctions are not important: “where do we see it from is the question.”

In section III Rich relates experiences and memories in the East as she sits “at this table in Vermont.” She describes past summers with her husband and children, which then connect with her own childhood. The image of her father, a Jew whose motto was “Without labor, no sweetness,” illustrates the continuity of existence that the poet conveys in every section of the poem; it also allows...

(The entire section is 869 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“An Atlas of the Difficult World” is a mural of the American landscape—emotional, economic, social, political—painted through imagery and metaphor. Images of ordinary people, especially women, are highlighted in each of the thirteen segments. The scenes, although specific and detailed, represent the universality of women’s experiences. Rich’s metaphoric language adds richness to the vignettes, and she appeals to the senses with such phrases as “strawberry blood on the wrist.” However, it is her use of the atlas as the extended metaphor that synthesizes the discrete scenes, unifying them into a comprehensive whole.

In section V each image describes “your country’s moment”; each is a significantly historical event that has left devastation, from the Battle of Wounded Knee to the last airlift from Saigon to a more recent event: Rich records a heinous attack on two lesbians who were camping along the Appalachian Trail in 1988. One was killed, and the other managed to drag herself back to town to notify the authorities. The attacker, in defending himself, states that they had “teased his loathing.” The image of death, literal and powerful, sparks a universal connection as Rich realizes, “A crosshair against the pupil of an eye/ could blow my life from hers.”

Reaching out to those who are disfranchised from the politics of the American landscape, Rich cites excerpts from Soledad Brother in section X. Soledad Prison is aptly named; Rich introduces the section with the dictionary meanings of the Spanish word...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

An Atlas of the Difficult World: Poems 1988-1991 is Adrienne Rich’s thirteenth collection of poems. If her earlier volumes of poetry could be categorized as seeking a woman-identified aesthetic and defining the common languages and experiences of women, then this volume marks a departure, for Rich assumes a new form of inclusion. As the title of the collection indicates, Rich’s vision becomes universal as she moves through America’s spiritual, cultural, and physical domains. Though the scope of the poems is expansive, and in that way recalls the visionary poetry of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855), it nevertheless is fiercely intimate; it never assumes the outright assuredness of Whitman, thus it is not the definitive atlas. As an atlas, it is one of many: It is Rich’s contribution to the mapping of the difficulties of modern American culture.

The collection is divided into two parts. The first part consists of the title poem, which is perhaps Rich’s most significant long poem. Divided into thirteen sections, “An Atlas of the Difficult World” opens with a woman attempting to bear witness, to listen to the vital signs of the country. Despite the new landscape in which one finds Rich, “the woman driving, walking, watching/ for life and death, is the same.” In the next eleven sections, Rich traverses the country, gleaning signs of the American condition.

The second section presents “a map of our country,” though Rich admits it is more like a “mural,” suggesting that how Americans view the world is as important as any presentation of it. The third section shifts to recollection of place and family. In this section, there is a sense of reconciliation with the past, notably with Rich’s...

(The entire section is 717 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

To consider any of Rich’s writings is to engage immediately in a dialogue with one of the central voices of contemporary culture and writing. Rich’s poetry has consistently explored women’s history and the condition of women in modern culture. Rich’s work has been vital for making one aware of a women-centered aesthetic and for supporting the recovery of past voices belonging to that aesthetic. Her poetry and prose have also reflected the activism among women’s rights groups. To map the course of feminism in the latter half of the twentieth century is to map simultaneously the course of Rich’s writings.

In An Atlas of the Difficult World, such issues as a woman’s place or the value of her work—issues that Rich has extensively explored—are less central. Informed by the feminist understanding that personal experiences reveal political or social conditions, an understanding which has been central to Rich’s poetics, these poems attempt to map the whole of society. They continue Rich’s work in re-visioning the language so as to re-vision the self. The poems, built through the accumulation of events, subvert the power of domination implicit in linear narratives. In these poems, Rich has also extended her sense of responsiveness to others, fulfilling the promise of a poetics of connection.